Staying Power

During his 79 years, Vic Kramer has watched downtown Phoenix morph from a bucolic village into a seething metropolis. His vantage point: the only home he has ever known.

Kramer's 1939 yearbook includes many gushing notations from female classmates and sweet, corny praise from others.

"Vic, lover," one inscription starts. Other classmates call him "a grand fella," "a darn swell kid'" and "one of the swellest fellas that there ever was."

The Golden West Hotel is the birthplace of Hilda Steinegger Kramer and the oldest commercial building downtown, but its days are numbered.
Paolo Vescia
The Golden West Hotel is the birthplace of Hilda Steinegger Kramer and the oldest commercial building downtown, but its days are numbered.

In the concrete near Vic Kramer's front steps, a shadow of footprint can be seen. Barely visible, it becomes clearer when water is splashed on it. About three inches long, it was made when Kramer, at age 2, pressed his little foot into the wet concrete.

These days, he suffers from edema, a swelling of his feet. He winces when he rises from a chair and he moans when he walks a few steps. "It's terrible to get old," he says.

But his mind is sharp, his nature good and he is happy to reminisce about the history of his family, his house and his hometown.

His father died in 1974 and his mother in 1982, both at the age of 92. Kramer remodeled the home after that, adding an elevator, a downstairs spa and sauna, and a free-standing library that abuts a second garage. The basement, which still includes a fireplace and a coal chute, was redesigned to resemble a German beer house, with a slot machine, beer on tap and an ornate, mother-of-pearl-accented billiard table. (That recent acquisition came from "a red-headed gal who used to work in my dad's office" -- Lorna Lockwood, who later became the first female state Supreme Court justice in the country.)

Throughout the home, particularly in the basement, there are beer steins. Kramer has been collecting them for decades. He has no idea how many he has, but their age ranges from one that is more than 350 years old to a white plastic one that features Sparky, the Arizona State University Sun Devils' mascot.

He lends some of them each year to the Phoenix Historical Society for an Oktoberfest display, he says.

Kramer first became interested in the beer mugs when he was in World War II and found a stein in the middle of a burned-out German building. It had a little cannon on the top of it and listed members of a World War I artillery unit. When he looked into the barrel of the cannon, he could see a tiny map showing where the unit had been assigned during the war.

He wrapped the stein in his bedroll, but it broke when the trailer carrying it hit a land mine. "I gave the driver hell," Kramer says. His newfound interest in beer steins remained intact.

Kramer had been sent overseas in field artillery in 1943, after finishing his studies at the University of Santa Clara in northern California. After the Allied victory, he stayed in Germany as a town major, using his marginal knowledge of German to help rebuild the towns devastated by the war. He returned in time to be accepted to the University of Arizona law school, an entree to follow in his father's capable footsteps.

But Kramer hated law school and dreaded the prospect of joining his father's Phoenix law firm.

A 1930 Arizona history book lauds R. William Kramer's "sterling character, high attainments and professional success." His résumé included stints as assistant U.S. attorney (he kept his German-speaking mother-in-law, Caroline Steinegger, out of jail during World War I), assistant attorney general, and Phoenix city attorney (forging the deal that created South Mountain Park). He was a member of the Arizona Club and the Phoenix Country Club and served as president of the Phoenix and Arizona chambers of commerce, the local and state bar associations and other civic groups.

He was a noted orator and a friend of the Catholic Church -- he donated time and legal advice to its needs. The history book says "no member of the legal profession is more widely known throughout the state than R. William Kramer."

Proud of his father but fearful of being a "blithering idiot" by comparison at his law firm, Vic Kramer decided to drop out of law school. His father was disappointed, but "he eventually got over it," says Kramer.

Kramer worked for a food broker in San Francisco, got called back into active duty during the Korean War (but stayed stateside), then worked in real estate and insurance for John Kellogg in an office in the San Carlos Hotel.

When Kellogg died, Kramer got out of that line of work and concentrated on property management and investing.

Kramer seems to take the city's phenomenal growth in stride, expressing more amazement than horror at how far the metropolitan area extends. He says he remembers attending a father-son meeting of the Kiwanis Club in the 1930s and listening to a guest speaker -- a real estate broker who predicted the future.

"He said, 'I foresee a day when the City of Phoenix will go from the mountains on the north to the mountains on the south,'" Kramer says. "And everyone said: 'You're crazy! You're nuts!'"

Al Romo understands Vic Kramer's devotion to downtown. Romo -- grandson of Ignacio Espinosa, who in 1879 opened a store near the present-day site of America West Arena -- grew up in a Pierce Street house just around the corner from the Kramers'.

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